In the last year, I have been invited to a whole lot of events. Perhaps in Africa it is good luck to have the goofy looking, white guy at your celebration, or maybe I am unwittingly part of the entertainment. Think of it like having a chimpanzee at your little kid’s birthday party. Let us just say, I stick out. Nevertheless, I have been to house raising ceremonies and parties, baby naming celebrations and funerals, and all kind of events in between.
One thing I have noticed at all of these events has stuck with me. There is a whole lot of talking about God but very little talking to God.
The people where I live are a very religious people. They are almost all practicing Muslims and consider their faith of the utmost importance and inseparable from their identity. (A lesson we in the States could stand to learn from them.) Their days are constantly interrupted by momentary pauses to pull out their prayer mats and their vocabulary is filled with spiritual lingo. Rarely a proposition is made without the predicate, “Xa Ala tin,” or “If God accepts.”
Yet, in the midst of all of this religiosity, I see a people who desperately lack life’s greatest joy. Their religion has produced an understanding of God that is so transcendent, he is unreachable. Stuck between the frightening reality of a world they cannot control and a God with whom they have no real connection, these people live in the throws of fatalism. The product is a life lived apart from its real purpose, deep communion with our creator.
They are a people living in abject poverty, sickness, and instability; yet, they are a people with no means of crying out to the only one who has authority over all. They are a people with hurts and pains and no voice. Ultimately, they are a people with no real hope.
This is a truth betrayed in their own prayers. As I sit in the corner, a fly on the wall, at countless ceremonies, I hear the ritualism take place. What ensues is a long string of prayers that really are not prayers at all. They all begin with the words, “Ala xa…” or “May God…”
“May God grant you peace,” “May God give you health,” “May God protect you,” they will say. But they will never talk to God. They do not plead with God himself on the behalf of others. They do not cry out to God asking him directly for his help. They simply pray about God.
My heart is broken for these people who have never tasted of life’s deepest joy, a relationship with the one, true and living God. In their darkest moments of despair, they have no rock on which to cling. But we have a firm foundation. He is real, and while it was his words that spoke all into existence, he is closer than our next breath. He is our God, and what is more, he is our Father.
We are unworthy of the love our God has for us. Left to our own devices, we are detestable, but we have a redeemer who stands in our place and a God who loves us as his own. When we are hurt, he knows and he cares. When we need him, he is always there. We can have hope everlasting and joy unspeakable, for we are carried by his strong arms. And when life closes in all around us, we can rest in our power to cry out, “Our Father in heaven,” and know that he will be there.
Oh God, help us to not take this for granted.